Bridges & Balloons' trip to the Scottish Isles
Despite living in the UK, I’ve seen a shamefully small amount of the countries that make it up.
In Scotland, up until now, I had only been to Edinburgh, Glasgow and a tiny town called Eskdalemuir where I visited a Buddhist monastery. But I’ve always been awed by photos and stories from the highlands and lochs, and earlier this year, I read The Outrun, which left me with a yearning to visit the Scottish isles. So, when ScotRail asked if I fancied a trip to western Scotland, taking in the Isle of Mull and Loch Lomond, I grabbed the opportunity. They gave Steve and I a Rail and Sail pass, which meant we could travel from Glasgow all the way to the Isle of Mull on one ticket. We went for two nights, a short round-trip from Glasgow, which gave us a beautiful taste of west Scotland, taking in Oban, Tobermory and Ardlui. The train journey itself is stunning, definitely one of the most beautiful I’ve travelled in the UK. If you’re tempted to replicate our trip, here’s a breakdown of what we did.
Oban and Tobermory
On day one, we made the journey from Glasgow to Tobermory, stopping in Oban for lunch along the way. It was a gloriously sunny morning and the views from the train on the three-hour journey from Glasgow to Oban took in a stream of magnificent lochs, forests, hills and mountains.
Oban is a charming little waterfront town, set on a bay with sweeping views looking out onto Mull. It’s the gateway to many of the Hebridean islands and, while we were there in August, the town was packed with tourists. That said, it still retained its charm and was a delightful place to spend a few hours. We climbed up the hill to McCaig’s Tower, a 20-minute journey, which was challenging when four months pregnant, but still totally manageable. The views from the top are stunning, and the bare windows of the tower frame it all perfectly.
From Oban, we caught a ferry to Craignure and a bus to Tobermory, our final destination for the day. The cute little fishing village is known for its colourful houses and was the setting for a popular children’s TV program, Balamory. It’s a tiny place that packs in a lot of character and is a lovely place to spend some time, wandering around and enjoying the views. There are lots of walks you can do in the area, for example to the lighthouse, Aros Park or the Glengorm Estate. We walked up to the Isle of Mull cheese farm where they have an impressive glass-fronted cafe with views across the island.
We didn’t time our visit precisely enough to do this, but one thing we’d have liked to do is take a nature tour, either on land or at sea. There are a few different options, from two-hour trips to day-long adventures where you can explore the island’s wildlife, including eagles, otters, and even whales and basking sharks at the right time of year. Not all the tours run every day and they do get booked up, so be sure to plan and book yours in advance. There are different options listed on the Explore Tobermory website.
Where to stay in Tobermory
We stayed at the Western Isles Hotel in Tobermory, an old fashioned 19th-century hotel with gorgeous views across the bay. The conservatory restaurant is a particularly lovely place to wile away some time and enjoy dinner or coffee with a view. There’s also a cosy lounge area where we enjoyed some live music on the night of our stay. The hotel is up quite a steep hill and about a 15-minute walk from the bus stop.
Where to eat in Oban and Tobermory
We ate lunch at the Oban Inn, a traditional Scottish pub, and there were plenty of other options too, including lots of fish and chip shops. If you’re into seafood, we heard that the Oban Seafood Hut isn't to be missed.
In Oban, we also had a coffee and cake at Julie’s Coffee House where I was delighted to find that you could order a selection of small cake pieces if you couldn’t pick just one. The Oban Distillery is just opposite, which you could visit too given the time.
In Tobermory, we ate dinner at our hotel, The Western Isles. The vegetarian selection was limited, but at least they had something, which is more than can be said for lots of the places we encountered along the way! For meat and seafood eaters, the selection was extensive.
How to get from Glasgow to Tobermory
The train from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban takes just over three hours, and trains leave every two-four hours. We got the 08:21, arriving into Oban at 11:27, which allowed us time for lunch and a walk up McCaig’s Tower before catching the ferry.
The ferry journey from Oban to Craignure on the Isle of Mull takes about 50 minutes. We sat outside on the viewing deck, enjoying the island views. The ferries leave every one-two hours during the summer.
From Craignure to Tobermory, we took the bus, which is timed to be there when the ferry arrives. The journey took about 45 minutes and cost £7.
If you want, you can also hire a car once on the Isle of Mull, which would be a good way to explore some of the island yourself.
On day two, we went from Tobermory to Ardlui, a tiny hamlet on the shores of Loch Lomond, halfway between Oban and Glasgow. Unlike the previous day, it was cloudy, misty and wet, showing us a different side of the Scottish summer. For some, this irregularity in the weather might be off-putting, but it’s part and parcel of Scotland’s beauty and the mist upon the loch was a magical sight to see.
We went for a short hike in Ardlui, enjoying the magnificent surrounds and then returning to our hotel to snuggle up with a hot chocolate and a game of cards. It’s an ideal place for relaxing and immersing yourself in nature. Or if you want something more adventurous, there’s a wakeboard and wakesurf school right next to the Ardlui Hotel, as well as boats, canoes and even a sea plane. Ardlui is also on the West Highland Way, so you’ll see many walkers passing through, and could even walk part of the way yourself.
Where to stay in Ardlui
There are only two places to stay in Ardlui: the Ardlui Lochside Lodges and the Ardlui Hotel. We stayed at the latter, a country-style hotel and pub with a cosy bar to warm up in. Rooms cost around £100 per night.
Where to eat in Oban and Ardlui
For lunch, we had just enough time between our ferry and train journey to grab some chips from a fish and chip shop in Oban. Delicious!
In Ardlui, the only place to eat is the hotel restaurant, which included a small selection of hearty vegetarian dishes, like a veggie lasagne and potato and leek soup.
How to get from Tobermory to Ardlui
The way to Ardlui from Tobermory is the same route as the previous day, but stopping in Ardlui on the train, which is 1.5 hours from Oban. So that’s a bus from Tobermory to Craignure, a ferry from Craignure to Oban, and the train from Oban to Ardlui. The whole journey takes about 3.5 hours, and as before the views were wonderful.
On day three, we simply made our way back to Glasgow from Ardlui and headed home. If you had the time, you could use this day to spend some more time in Ardlui or explore the city of Glasgow. The train ticket allows you to travel at any time.
The Rail & Sail Pass
We travelled with a Rail & Sail pass, which combines rail and ferry travel in one ticket. Our ticket was for Glasgow to Craignure, and the return journey was valid for up to a month from the day of departure. There is no need to book your seats on the trains or ferry in advance. One benefit is that you get to skip the queue for a ferry ticket, and jump straight on instead.
Victoria is a London-based writer, editor and blogger who loves finding special places to explore at home and around the world. Follow her blog, Bridges and Balloons, here.